Does pushing students to succeed foster achievement or cause harm?

Olivia Senor


In first grade, a teacher at Glen Arden Elementary School gave me an IQ test that I don’t even remember — one that would shape the rest of my life. My peers underwent a similar examination, and our performance ensured that, each year until eighth grade, we would be paraded out of the classroom in the middle of a lesson in a rather conspicuous ceremony with great pomp and circumstance. My cohort and I, you see, were designated as “academically or intellectually gifted” — AIG students.

We were given special attention and shepherded into our own private classroom, where we would learn Caesar’s English and read E.B. White novels. It was those 10 other students who would become my closest friends. From Glen Arden to Koontz Intermediate and then to Cane Creek Middle, we formed a tightly knit group who challenged and competed with one another, comparing grades, planning our futures and generally speaking only to ourselves.

When it came time for high school, half of us went to A.C. Reynolds (myself included) and half to T.C. Roberson. There, we took honors and advanced placement classes; we joined the National Honor Society; we became Junior Marshals; we graduated with “highest honors”; we attended the Top Scholars banquet. We were constantly rewarded for our achievement, doted on as model students and paraded in front of the community as leaders, success stories — after all, from the time we were 7 years old, our futures had been set in stone. Given the mark of Cain that was “academically or intellectually gifted” ensured that we would have instant friends, community and connections — certainly something to be proud of, right?

Challenge the narrative

I may not remember taking an IQ test, but I do remember the only year that I didn’t cry over a math class. I remember getting tutored in the mornings and afternoons by my math teachers; I remember sobbing when I thought I might get a B in Algebra II. I remember asking my friends their class rank and feeling incompetent, an irredeemable failure when I was one or two positions below them, even if our GPAs differed by a mere fraction of a point. I remember hours upon hours spent poring over homework, preparing for quizzes, panicking over finals. I remember when I was held back at the doctor’s office during my junior year of high school because my heart rate was so elevated. Not to worry, I assured the doctor, I merely had my pre-calculus exam the next day.

Fourteen years after that first IQ test, five years after I didn’t cry in math for the first (and only) time and four years after that fateful doctor’s appointment, I am starting my senior year at UNC Chapel Hill, a school full of students whose stories read much like my own. Yet now, I skip my classes, stay up every night worrying about my grades and find it difficult to get out of bed most days. I have tried countless medications to manage my anxiety and depressive episodes. I feel woefully inadequate when I hear those around me discuss their GPAs, and I am on the verge of a panic attack every time I consider the possibility that I might get anything lower than a B.

 Those around me are no different: For us, failure (meaning becoming academically unremarkable), is not an option. In many ways, the culture here, as at many “good” universities across the country, is one of cutthroat competition; a self-imposed desire to achieve at all costs dominates our minds. Last fall alone, we had three suicides. I have watched my own mental health and the health of those around me deteriorate exponentially.

The time has come to ask ourselves: Why do we push children to succeed so tirelessly? And what does “success” mean, anyway?

A different approach

I am not self-deprecating when I say that I am undoubtedly not the smartest person I know. In reality, the smartest people I know got far worse grades than me, did not even go to college, did not “succeed” (by that very thin academic metric imposed since first grade) in school, were not offered countless awards. In many cases, they were unfamiliar with the words “I’m proud of you.”

Indeed, it is well overdue that we begin to support students who do not excel in that narrow field we so reverently call “academia.” This means embracing career and technical education; offering students who may not earn high grades but create incredible pieces in shop, mechanics, culinary arts and the like the same awards that we provide traditional honors students.

It means working to provide students who are wildly intelligent, yet struggle with a learning disability, with different, more inclusive options to prove themselves both inside and outside of the classroom. It means offering a more tailored, individualized approach to students who are not fluent in English. It means working to diversify honors and Advanced Placement classes (both teachers and pupils) so students will not be dissuaded from signing up because they do not see anyone who looks like them. It means aiding students who work outside of school and may not have the time or energy to dive headfirst into their studies. Where are these students’ accolades, their support?

Who are we helping?

As I begin my final year at Chapel Hill, I wonder what resources my friends and I may use to survive — and thrive — at such a competitive institution. How can we work to change not only the culture at the school but also within ourselves? I believe it begins with letting go of unreasonable expectations, with acknowledging that grades are a poor metric for intelligence and for future success. The phrase “Cs get degrees” is true — at its core, a C means that you understood the material. Why do we spurn this?

It is easy for me to say that we should drop our expectations of ourselves, but in practice, this is far more challenging. One of the best things that I have learned in college, though, is that this mentality is unsustainable. My advice to anyone facing a similar dilemma is that you recognize the things that bring you joy and pursue them. Build in time for your passions. This is critical. Otherwise, your body will force you to take a break, to slow down. I know mine did.

My advice to teachers, administrators and anyone else within the educational system is to support students of all abilities and interests. I hesitate to ask more of teachers who are already overworked, underpaid, overburdened and underappreciated. Yet a culture of rigor begins and ends with the adults who structure our educational system. Pushing students to achieve at all costs is unsustainable. Those in charge of fundraising, those who donate to schools and create policy for teachers: Our educators need to be better trained, resourced and staffed to provide the kind of individualized, thoughtful support that all students require.

It is exceptionally challenging to be a student (and a teacher) in the current rigorous academic culture. I therefore leave you with one question: Who are we really helping with this emphasis on excellence? Because virtually without fail, it is not our students.

Olivia Senor is a senior at the UNC Chapel Hill majoring in history and minoring in geography and music.


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2 thoughts on “Does pushing students to succeed foster achievement or cause harm?

  1. Voirdire

    thanks for this Olivia. And yes, you’re on spot about those many “academically unremarkable” students whom are not precisely found on the “achieving student” portion of the “academia” spectrum ….they’ll be fine. And, so will you once you get your degree from Chapel Hill and complete your graduate work. You’ll begin to realize -only then- that all of your schooling was simply to provide you with the tools to continue your lifelong learning adventure. Onward.

  2. Big Al

    The first time I saw this article, I went straight to the final paragraph and concluded that this was a spoiled and entitled youth whining about being encouraged to pursue excellence while promoting mediocrity. Thank goodness I went back and read the entire article before sounding off with my ten cents worth.

    Her experience with artificially and commercially inflated gauges of perfornance, like the IQ test, reminded me of my own experience in the late 1970s to early 1980s with Duke University’s Talent Idendification Program (TIP) and the popular label of Gifted and Talented students and classes in middle school. I was identified as Gifted and Talented and listed as a TIP member. As such I was published in some book with hundreds if not thousands of other TIP and G&T students that you could purchase for about $40 (can you say SCAM) and that was SUPPOSEDLY referred to by college admission officers to determine acceptance.

    Based on these results (and ignoring negative comments from my teachers going back to the 1st grade), I was encouraged in High School to take college preperatory classes in English and History and graduated with the highest of three catagories of diploma, the college-preparatory Academic Diploma, rather than the General or Vocational ones. I also scored above average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). But my graduation GPA was a mediocre C.

    After a tour in the Army, I attended two mostly meaningless years of college where, despite being on the Dean’s list every other semester, I was still a C student. I then attended Nursing School and graduated with, again, a C average. Then I passed the Board of Nursing’s NCLEX exam on the first try and in under 2 hours, which is generally considered a measure of excellence. A few years later I took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and scored in the highest 10th percentile, although I decided against enrolling into any graduate degree program.

    Ses a pattern here? Based on TIP, G&T, SAT, ASVAB , NCLEX and GRE I should be no less than a Doctor (of something) by now, not a nurse without a degree.

    Test scores only indicate one thing: some people are great at taking them.

    And I DO believe in promoting excellence over mediocrity, but it needs to be based on a comprehensive approach, not just standardized test scores.

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